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Ed Leigh: How To Save Competitive Snowboarding

Ex WL editor and BBC host Ed Leigh gives his unique take on what needs to be done to make contests matter again

Competitive snowboarding is in a progressive cul de sac that will end with a brand new crop of seventeen-year-old snowboarders-come-gymnasts battling it out with quad corks in Korea in 2018. This is not a healthy projection of our sport into the mainstream, as it ignores the heritage and legends of our sport in favour of progression.

“Competitive snowboarding is in a progressive cul de sac”

The blame lies uncomfortably with the Olympics. Since 1998, when snowboarding debuted at the games, we have been trying to work out ways to standardise the sport in the competitive arena in the hope of appearing more professional in the eyes of the IOC and FIS and take back a slice of the Olympic action. It hasn’t worked. In fact it’s had the opposite effect, as competitions become more sterile and predictable, their popularity slumps and so in turn sponsorship dries up. The first casualty of smaller budgets is the TV product, now a luxury most events can’t afford. Working for the BBC I argue every year that we need more snowboard events, but there are so few events that have a high-quality TV product that I don’t have a strong case. On top of that, with no coherent tour and a high turnover of young riders leaving a lack of recognisable faces, it’s increasingly difficult to make people care.

“Wherever you are in the world, you know what slopestyle courses are going to look like. Where is the creative challenge?”

Danny Davis: rockstar. Photo: Gabe L’Heureux

Surfing’s World Championship Tour or as it’s often known, ‘The Dream Tour’, is action sports’ example of best practice in this field. 34 of the world’s best surfers – including almost all the big names – travel to ten of the world’s best waves, each of which demands a different skill set to surf successfully. In contrast, snowboarding has gone in the opposite direction. Wherever you are in the world, you know what slopestyle courses are going to look like: three rails into three kickers. Where is the creative challenge in this? It’s rote learning, nothing more than figureboarding.

Pat Moore at Red Bull Ultra Natural. If Ed's 'Dream Tour' format caught on, this all-rounder would be a potential world champ. Photo: Scott Serfas
Pat Moore at Red Bull Ultra Natural. If Ed’s ‘Dream Tour’ format caught on, this all-rounder would be a potential world champ. Photo: Scott Serfas

In my opinion, the answer is to build snowboarding’s own dream tour: eight events around the world that cover all types of terrain. Travis Rice’s Super/Ultra Natural in BC; trees in Japan; pipe in Laax; banked slalom in Baker; slopestyle in Mammoth; street in Helsinki; freeriding in Utah; big mountain in Alaska. You pick the twenty best riders who sign contracts for the entire tour alongside four young gun, legend or injury wild cards for each event. It gives you continuity with the riders – something that is woefully lacking at the moment – and it revives the core values of the sport so you can begin to build stories around the event’s heritage. This in turn gives the event value, because people start to care about winning the way did about Air+Style up to the early 2000s. But most importantly it can give us back our legends; a more diverse tour could see the likes of Travis, Gigi, Nicolas Müller, Eric and John Jackson, Forest Bailey, Mathieu Crepel and Halldor consider returning to the competitive arena.

Kalle Ohlson would be a threat at any Scandi rail stop - but how would he fare in the pow? Photo: Matt Georges.

“The answer is to build snowboarding’s own dream tour: eight events around the world that cover all types of terrain”

It is an enormous shift in focus because it divorces the core of the sport from not just the Olympics but every other elite level event. It will also will alienate a generation of riders who have grown up training for those one-dimensional contests. But it needs to happen because the alternative is too slow and torturous to consider, namely: our sport becoming the downhill equivalent of figureskating.

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